We continued our creative writing class with The Prison Education Project (PEP) at Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa. We had gotten to know our writers and even to hear some of their story ideas. In the third class, the writers were invited to read a piece they worked on for homework.
“Who wants to come on up?” Helin asked, “Don’t be shy.”
“I will read mine,” said a man I will call Ali. He had a shaved head and dimples. His smile was as bright as his yellow smock and pants. We all sat and waited as he walked up to the screen.
“This goes out to Queen Jackie. It is a letter of hope and love from across the seas…” How I wish I had the letter to me as it combined Ali’s love for America and boxing with his crush on me. We snapped when it was done, and I tried not to blush.
“Thank you, Ali, interestingly Ali, I write to people I admire all the time,” I said.
“Do they write you back?” asked Ali.
“Yes, my favorite author, Mary Dorian Russell, wrote me back. Read The Sparrow gentlemen if you can get a copy,” I said. They all nodded and wrote the name of the book down.
Helin and Los called me Queen Jackie in jest for the rest of the class. Names were important. PEP encouraged all teachers to use the writers’ names as much as possible during classes so they would feel seen and heard. It worked. We were all connected, a circle of writers sharing with one another our stories. One of the ways we were able to connect with the students was by sharing our own stories. Helin, Los, and I were all authentic, speaking of our lives and struggles. I discussed my sobriety and the grace it gave me to write. Some writers nodded and I recognized kindred souls. Los discussed poetry with the writers and told them about his favorite poet, a Portuguese man named Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poetry under at least 81 names. Helin brought her cat Khaki up to the screen and he became the official mascot of the class. The men always asked about Khaki.
“Say hi to Khaki. Tell him we miss him,” the gentlemen would say right before we logged off.
In our last class, all the writers read a piece of their writings. Many of the gentlemen sang songs to us or quoted biblical scripture wishing us health and peace. At ten pm, the guard said we had to log off. We did not want to go. The hope in the room was intoxicating. We could all feel it and wanted to hold onto it as long as possible.
“We hope you come in person to Africa to teach us in person, we will be waiting,” said a young man who looked all of sixteen years old.
PEP succeeds in working within prisons because we work within the system. PEP works with correctional facilities in a collaborative manner and follows the rules and policies within the institution, without questioning or challenging them. Yet it is still troubling to see these redeemable men behind prison walls. With the pandemic ebbing it is my hope that PEP will resume in-person classes within the prisons of California and the world. PEP will then have teachers journey to Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa to teach in person. My dream is to journey to Uganda, meet my fellow writers, and hear their stories face to face.
Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 1.
For more information on the Prison Education Project’s work with Luzira Maximum Security Prison, please watch this documentary: PEP Uganda.
“Winner of the Los Angeles Film Awards for “Best Documentary Feature,” produced/directed by Dr. Renford Reese, this documentary takes a look at one of the most fascinating prisons in the world, Luzira Upper Prison in Kampala, Uganda. David Goldblatt from the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated that “Luzira is the home to the world’s most elaborate prison football league.” Beyond soccer, Luzira is an intriguing place where prison guards have no weapons, where inmates hold hands with each other and occasionally with the guards as they walk the yard. This film captures the amazingly tranquil and healing community in this prison. PEP-Uganda volunteers traveled to Luzira from California to teach but they learned substantially more than they taught. The volunteers witnessed the essence of brotherhood, sisterhood, culture, community, and humanity.” (Youtube Description)
Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives.
Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.